The vultures after our schools

Lee Sustar reports on the latest fronts in the corporate school reformers' offensive.

Students and parents on the march against school closures in Chicago (Sarah-ji)Students and parents on the march against school closures in Chicago (Sarah-ji)

ONE YEAR after the successful Chicago teachers' strike stunned the corporate education reformers, public schools are once again under the gun.

School districts in cities across the U.S. are pushing school closings, budget cuts, layoffs, privatization and demands for sweeping concessions from teachers' unions--with Philadelphia leading the way.

In Chicago, the school year began this past Monday with 50 fewer schools open. A vengeful Mayor Rahm Emanuel pushed the closures through, while calling for an equal number of charter schools to open--all while pushing budget cuts that will result in layoffs and overcrowded classrooms.

To show just who's boss, prior to the school year starting, Emanuel ordered the bulldozing of an elementary school annex used as a parent and community center in a Mexican American community.

But this fall, the front line in the battle to defend public education is in Philadelphia, where budget cuts threatened to stop schools from opening at all until the city borrowed $50 million in mid-August.

Furious over the cuts and union-bashing, more than 1,000 teachers, parents and supporters marched against unelected School Reform Commission (SRC) at its August 24 meeting.

The five-member SRC--three of whom are appointed by Pennsylvania's Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, and two by Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter, a Democrat--is demanding that teachers take $133 million in concessions to restore the jobs of some the 3,895 educators and support staff laid off earlier this year, as journalist Daniel Denvir noted.

That's twice as much money as the SRC is seeking from the city--and $13 million more than what the school authorities want from the state. The impact on teachers would be devastating: a pay cut of 13 percent for veteran teachers and the imposition of out-of-pocket health care costs for the first time.

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THE PHILADELPHIA schools have been under control of the state of Pennsylvania for 12 years, making the state government ultimately responsible for school financing. But Gov. Tom Corbett, a Republican, has said he's only willing to approve $45 million in state spending on Philadelphia schools--less than half of the requested amount--without additional concessions on work rules and pay from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers (PFT).

The SRC has already used the school system's $304 million deficit to abrogate the school code that, among other things, will allow the school board to recall laid-off workers without regard to seniority. This has allowed Philadelphia Schools Superintendent William Hite to call back 1,000 school aides and staff to monitor hallways and operate the schools with what one local broadcast journalist called a "skeleton staff."

Philadelphia's business and political establishment are united in attacking the teachers. The PFT, declared a Philadelphia Inquirer editorial, "has no one to blame but itself" for its crisis.

Driving this agenda is the Philadelphia Schools Partnership, a secretive, self-appointed committee dominated by some of the city's most powerful CEOs.

Under its tutelage, the SRC has been exploring ways to further dismantle the school system, which by late 2012 had 55,625 students in charter schools--some 40 percent of the total enrollment of 137,512.

A plan to turn over the rest of schools to networks of private operators has been stalled, but the SRC moved ahead with the closure of 23 schools and squeezed concessions out of the system's blue-collar unions.

All this represents an effort to "decimate" the union, said PFT President Jerry Jordan. In fact, the union already took major concessions in 2011, agreeing to allow the school district to skip a $58 million payment into the union health and welfare plan, and agreeing to let the district to repay only $28 million in the future.

The PFT has a contract expiration date of August 31. Although teachers' strikes are prohibited under the law mandating the state's control, angry rank-and-file union members are saying preparation for such action is necessary.

"Our contract is up August 31," said Philadelphia high school teacher Anissa Weinraub. "There is mounting, energy, anger and frustration. There is a recognition that this is a historical moment--that we have an opportunity because things are so bad. Decades and decades of historical disinvesment [in public education] are being highlighted in this crisis. Parents get it, teachers get it, students get it."

As in other cities, school reform in Philadelphia is driven by a coalition of corporate-funded think tanks and local business bigwigs. The Pennsylvania chapter of Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst group praised Corbett for starving Philly schools of funds, stating:

Continuing to invest in a broken education system only hurts the very people it serves: our kids. We support the governor, Superintendent William Hite and others who are working to provide resources while advocating for reforms that will lead to a better education for all our students.

As retired teacher Ron Whitehorne wrote:

The Corbett rescue plan for Philadelphia's schools, forged by the likes of Comcast vice president David Cohen, Philadelphia School Partnership's Mark Gleason and the Chamber of Commerce, sets the stage for a full-court press to wring concessions from the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers.

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THERE ARE many parallels between the struggle to save public education in Philadelphia and the movement in Chicago that led to last year's teachers' strike.

Both cities have long been laboratories for corporate-driven education reform. Paul Vallas, the first Chicago schools CEO in the reform era, went on to Philadelphia after a stint handing over New Orleans schools to charter operators following Hurricane Katrina. As former assistant secretary of education Diane Ravitch wrote, Vallas pushed privatization to new levels and left the Philadelphia school district with "its finances in shambles, desperately underfunded, nearly 4,000 teachers and other staff laid off, schools under threat of closure or privatization, students with little or no access to the arts and the other essentials of a basic education."

In Chicago, the Vallas years gave rise to a reform movement in the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) that ousted the old guard in 2001 for one term. The Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators (CORE), formed to resist school closures, won office in 2010 and prepared for the strike that halted the attack on the teachers' union contract and built an ongoing movement to resist school closures and budget cuts.

The PFT, however, doesn't have a similar history of activism. And now the union literally faces a fight for its continued relevance. Like the CTU, the PFT has the opportunity to strike, not only to defend teachers' compensation and working conditions, but also public education itself.

Certainly, striking in violation of the law carries risks of fines and injunctions. However, if the union stands by and does nothing, it could well end up like its sister union local in New Orleans, which represents just a fraction of its former membership, with nearly 80 percent of the city's schools turned over to charter operators.

The PFT's national affiliate, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), has sounded the alarm about the Philadelphia school crisis. AFT President Randi Weingarten was arrested during a protest against school closures last spring, and the AFT has launched a petition to oppose the cuts.

And in her prepared remarks at the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington last weekend, Weingarten said, "Let's all of us--not simply educators, parents and kids--stage nonviolent protests in districts that fail to invest in public education and that turn their backs on struggling schools." But Weingarten and the AFT missed the opportunity to highlight the battle for Philadelphia schools and build support for the fledgling movement.

The challenges in Philadelphia are great. But so is the potential to fight. "Clergy are talking about calling for a boycott," said Weinraub, the Philadelphia teacher. "Parents are talking about a boycott. Teachers are talking about a strike. If we can connect that to the powerful movement we need in Philadelphia to force our local leaders to go to the capital get the money we need, we can force Harrisburg to fulfill its constitutional duty" to fund the schools.

The Chicago strike showed that teachers, parents and community members who take a stand for our schools are far more popular than any corporate education reformer or politician who carries out their program. If Philadelphia teachers follow the Chicago example and take a stand, they can tap support across their city--and around the U.S.